The Mario & Sonic Olympic games are traditionally known for their simplicity and their strong motion control focus (the popularity and appeal of which have steadily decreased since the Wii). However, the latest in the iconic series featuring the two biggest nineties-video-game-mascot rivals on the Switch delivers a competent (if still a little similar-feeling) party game for the whole family. And while the sports-focus may turn some away, the addition of a meatier-than-expected story, some fun mini-games and a nostalgic 2D mode means that both single-player fans and families looking for a quick distraction will probably find something to enjoy. And even though it won’t blow your Olympic socks off, it does at least move the series in the right direction from its simple-swing-at-the-screen predecessors.
An old-school Olimpic story
At first, despite being a fan of most Mario-related games, I was not overwhelmingly interested in SEGA’s latest sporty team-up title. It’s not that anything specifically put me off, but nothing attracted me to the game either. That changed with the reveal of the retro 2D levels. I suddenly had a feature that encouraged me to try out the game. Happily, the one item that attracted me to the game was not only a standalone mode but the basis of the story mode; A story mode that really offered a lot more than I was expecting.
A story mode that really offered a lot more than I was expecting.
In a very ‘meta’ video game trope – Sonic, Mario, Eggman and Bowser are sucked into ‘the game’ via a retro mini-arcade-like console. While characters in the game compete in the 1964 Japan Olympics in their wonderfully retro 2D forms, characters outside (led by Luigi and Tails) battle to free them by competing in the more modern version of the 2020 games. Sure, it sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s just about the right kind of weird we’ve come to expect from video games. Especially those starring the moustachioed plumber or his spiky speedster frenemy. The story will, surprisingly, take you around 5-8 hours and introduces you to the various events across the two modes. Along the way, you’ll also learn Olympic games trivia factoids, unlock some fun non-real-event minigames, see more of the Tokyo Map and even get to know more about the various Mario/Sonic-related characters.
While the start-up cut scenes and in-game models of each of the characters are really phenomenal, in other areas it did feel like a few shortcuts had been taken. There is no in-game voiceover stuff – and while this isn’t a deal-breaker and I realise it does cost a lot of extra money – each character had one distinct voice/sound clip that gets repeated. A lot! It quickly became really grating. Animations within the story mode cut-scenes also felt a little odd and while it may seem like a strangely specific complaint – having characters grab and pick up invisible items when we know what the item looks like felt very jarring and little like the animation was unfinished. On the audio side of things, the jump between the retro and modern games brings with it a great collection of era-appropriate sound clips like Mario’s iconic jump. Sadly, the accompanying ‘music’ basically entails one song repeated constantly. And while the jump between a chipset-tune and contemporary version of that song is really cool, after several hours I was definitely craving something more.
Sadly the accompanying ‘music’ basically entails one song repeated constantly. And while the jump between a chipset-tune and contemporary version of that song is really cool, after several hours I was definitely craving something more.
Let the game (modes) begin!
I found my story playthrough to lean heavily towards the easy side of things. And while this is normally Nintendo’s way of doing things, it does lose some of its appeal when several events offer no challenge at all. Then, suddenly, a handful of events throw in some super high difficulty spikes (especially if you’re not so great with following a quick flurry of button combination instructions) and you’re really left confused and frustrated. Happily, on the rare occasion that this happens, there’s a nice option to completely skip an event after three attempts without getting stuck at that point in the story. Along the way, you’ll also unlock some mini-games to enjoy and while these don’t tie directly to the Olympics, they’re a lot of fun.
After the substantial story, the title screen offers up a few other game modes. Quick Match allows you to play any of the events you have unlocked in both the modern or retro versions of the game. There are 21 modern events, ten 2D events and three special dream events. In this mode, you are able to choose your difficulty (Normal, Hard and Very Hard). Upping this setting makes a big difference and the game becomes a lot more challenging in general. Here too, is where you can enjoy some multiplayer fun – with 2-4 players being able to take each other on using a single Switch. Of course, if you happen to have multiple Switches and multiple copies of the game there is a Local Play option available too.
It’s a box-of-chocolates – and you’re bound to find a few events you like and a few that must be destroyed at all costs.
On the online side of things, the option to jump into either Ranked or Free matches is presented – and a Rankings Board promises a tangible way to prove your worldwide dominance. However, during the entire review period, I never once found an opponent available in either online mode. Of course, as the game only officially launches the day you read this, it could be that you will have better luck than me. However, I suspect it’s sadly more of the same story for us players in South Africa with online matchmaking for many Switch games being inconsistent at best. And for those reasons, I can’t offer much of an opinion.
Controls – Faster, Higher-ish, not really Stronger
On the other hand, as you probably expected – I loved the 2D stuff. The pixelated forms were great and the animators did a great job effortlessly melding the 8-bit Mario versions with Sonic’s 16-bit form. Notably, the retro games not only look different, but there’s a more traditional, D-Pad/4-basic button-pressy, arcade gameplay-style too. I definitely got distinct NES/Famicom Track & Field vibes. The rapid, repetitive button presses do get a little old after a while but it felt perfect in a nostalgic sense and they did try to mix it up with some timing-based and sequence-based button-mashing games too.
On the more modern side of things, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Here, the old-school button-mashing is still around but this is combined with much more rhythm and motion-controlled actions. The inclusion of these as well as the shoulder buttons and dual analogue sticks ups the complexity quite a bit. And some of it feels really great. I particularly enjoyed Archery, Fencing, Sport Climbing and even the simplicity of the Rugby Sevens games – even though for the latter, ‘passing’ and ‘dotting down for a try’ should never be mapped to the same button.
Unfortunately, a lot of the events begin to feel very similar. And while some really try to use the wide range of the Joy-Con capabilities with some interesting results, even these eventually become repetitive or you quickly realise they’re just not that fun to replay. Many require an overly-complicated combination of buttons to complete and the provided instructions (though quite-wordy) are also wildly unintelligible. So trying the event is the only way to really work out what to do. On the whole, there are some events that are great, some that will drive you mad, some that are fun and others that make you feel like you need an extra few fingers to master. It’s a box-of-chocolates – and you’re bound to find a few you like and a few that must be destroyed at all costs. That’s how the Forest Gump quote goes, right?
Motion controls still feel a little gimmicky and while they do lead to more broken vases they also lead to a lot more laughter when playing as a family.
There is a range of control options which is really awesome to see. For most of my story mode playthrough, I opted for the ‘Buttons Only’ play style and it made the whole thing feel like your more traditional video game experience. However, when later playing the multiplayer with my wife, it was really fun trying out the motion-controlled Joy-Con options. Some events only require a single Joy-Con while others require a double-Joy-Con setup. Of course, motion controls for some reason don’t feel as good or accurate as they did on the Wii and let’s be honest it still feels a little gimmicky. But looking at the game as family party title, having the much easier to explain ‘swing-your-hand-at-the-screen’ control option enabled for your granny or 4-year old is not only going to lead to more broken vases but undoubtedly also a lot more laughter. And that’s a great thing.
A solid performance deserving of a Bronze
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is exactly what you expect it to be. A fun, arcade sports title that provides a bright (if a little similar-feeling) option for family-friendly gaming. The single-player story mode and retro-2D additions are great. There’s a lot more content than I was expecting and I was pleasantly surprised during my playthrough. However, once you’ve got the family over and you’ve tried some of the different events and swung your arms at the TV for a while, I suspect that there’s nothing there to really hold your attention for too long.
There are a series of better party games on the Switch right now and so it’s difficult to recommend solely on those merits. However, if you’re looking for something fun and sporty and you want something good to fill the gap before next year’s Olympics event in Tokyo, you’ll definitely find enough to enjoy. It may not be a world-beater but it’s an impressive-enough performer worthy of a steady bronze medal and maybe a place in your video game collection.